There comes a time when we all actually get serious about cleaning out our “stuff”, items we no longer need, but still retain for various obscure reasons.
We recently helped my daughter and partner move house and I was amazed at the amount of “stuff” they had accumulated after only eight years together. This prompted me to get serious about getting my own house in order, sorting out my historical detritus.
It’s a complex, difficult process, more emotional than physical. Particularly with sorting through old items of one’s parents. It’s as though your childhood is finally slipping away into the darkness, it’s a type of guilt about disposing of items which once meant something to them. But there is little stuff that I would personally use, and I know my children would not be interested in these superfluous snapshots of family history.
With Dad, I have many memories and reminders. The piles of his writing, the boxes of slides, and a few treasured old tools. With mum, it’s not so easy, she was mainly involved in the garden club. But thinking about her life, if there was one particular remnant I would choose to mentally retain it would be her cooking. It was her role in the family. The Sunday roasts, the apple pies, but particularly her famous tasty Christmas pudding.
From a young age I looked forward to Christmas day on my aunt’s farm on the Mornington Peninsular. For lunch, the huge dining table seated a horde of assorted uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins, friends and other hangers on, to consume a massive meal. After the main Christmas course, all would keenly await the highlight of the day – the grand entrance of the pudding. This icon would be carried into the room by my mum, the maker, and would be flaming with lashings of brandy, (in itself a fire danger in the old timber cottage.)
We would devour the pudding, hoping to get a thruppence or sixpence, which sadly we had to return for next year’s pudding. There were second helpings, laughter and compliments to mum that this was her best pudding yet. Then onto the second highlight of the day, giving out presents.
This ritual lasted for decades. Faces changed, older family died, cousins brought new partners, grandchildren arrived, but mum always made the pudding. In October, the annual process would begin. Mum would spread the ingredients on the old timber kitchen table, and clamp on the heavy cast iron hand mincer. I played a critical role as the suet mincer, laboriously but proudly mincing up a huge pile of suet, at that young age not knowing what this tough sinewy stuff was. Mum would start up the big Sunbeam mixmaster; we would all give the mix a stir with the old wooden spoon, throw in the money and make a wish.
Dad’s role was to maintain a steady fire to steam the pudding for eight hours. Our old house in Clifton Hill had an outside laundry with a huge copper boiler.. He would rig up a device to support the pudding by its cloth loop at the right height, and every hour would stoke the fire and top up the water. Finally the pudding would be hung in its cloth ball in the laundry until Christmas day.
The huge family gatherings finally ended, but mum still made a smaller pudding for the immediate family. After she died, dad continued the tradition until he died. All this time, I never actually knew what the pudding contained, as mum refused to give away her recipe, and dad continued this secrecy. We were simply happy to enjoy the rich sticky tasty treat. When he died I found the recipe, scribbled on a piece of tattered paper in an old diary.
By that time I had forgotten about the suet, and was horrified to see what we had been eating all those years — slabs of saturated fat, plantations of sugar, chocolate, gallons of alcohol, all bound together by healthier mixed fruits, but topped by a sugary creamy custard sauce. Great for me as a diabetic. My wife was horrified at what her mother in law had fed her. I thought it best to keep quiet about the huge tub of lard in mum’s fridge, used to baste the rich Sunday roasts, which all enjoyed.
In honour of my dear old mum, I made her pudding, only once, the first Christmas after dad died when the recipe came to light. It was not as tasty as mum’s, as I left out the suet, and went easy on the sugar, but my family enjoyed it and I had fun telling the kids tales about their gran and pop and aunt May’s farm. It brought back happy memories of our big family, now dispersed, and about our times on the farm a long time ago.
The recipe? Long since gone. I recently spent hours searching through old recipe boxes, through my parents’ papers, and I couldn’t find it. I would not have thrown it out, and it must be somewhere in the house, and may turn up one day, maybe my kids will find it when I go. But in the process I had a beautifully poignant time, trawling through mum’s old recipes, dad’s old stories, ancient photos and the memories of my early life.
Out of curiosity, I googled “old fashioned plum pudding” and hundreds of hits came up, all with the same type of ingredients, including the suet. This was slightly surprising as I thought mum’s recipe was unique, but clearly many mums in that era were busily boiling up puddings pre Christmas, and their little kids were busily mincing suet. But I guess the eating environment gives each pudding its own unique flavour.
In mum’s memory here is an old imperial recipe which from my early memories seems to most resemble her one. For the fun of it, I may make it one Christmas, and we would greedily and guiltily consume the sinful product, but I reluctantly think not. Maybe a synthetic suet pudding will suffice.
The “could have been mum’s Christmas suet pudding.”
4 oz plain flour
2 oz dark chocolate grated
1 teaspoon mixed spice
6 oz fresh white breadcrumbs
10 oz suet ground
8 oz brown sugar
2 oz dried apples and apricots
2 lbs raisins, currants and chopped dates
2 oz hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds chopped
zest of one lemon and orange
2 teaspoons of vanilla essence
1 teaspoon almond essence
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon honey
qtr pint dark rum or brandy